It was a hot and dry afternoon but the cold silence made me shiver a bit. My eyes were glued to the walls dipped in hues of teal and turquoise that added to the frigid atmosphere. As I walked in through a small portal painted in shades of blue, I could see a towering iron ladder with a white flag on top fluttering in the air. A smattering of small structures was scattered around in an open courtyard, one of them was dome-shaped and there was another topped with tiles. While one of the shrines, located at the centre seemed to be larger than the others, there was also another enclosure without walls and it gave out an eerie vibe with chains hanging around. I realized there were no deities, mantras or prayers, or priests in this mystical temple. However, the soaring ladder is believed to be the home of the Goddesses, mainly Kali and it is called a stairway to heaven by the local tribes in Madhya Pradesh. I was in a remote village called Chougan, also called Chaugan or Chogan in Madhya Pradesh, located near Mandla, in a temple that was filled with demonic and divine forces, a place where the supernatural and the spiritual worlds merged. The temple in the village is known for ritual practices of exorcism in India and is thronged by tribes from all over Central India. As I looked around, I could see more ladders and a flame burning below one of them. Tiny niches in the walls were carved with friezes of figurines that were embedded in them.
I was suddenly interrupted by a flurry of activity at the large, central shrine, where I saw an old man sitting at the entrance, adjacent to the tiny blue doors that guarded the dark ominous chamber inside. Dressed in white with a turban around his head and a yellow cloth tied like a scarf around his neck, there was an ageless and mysterious feel to him.
A young mother, clad in a blue saree with two small kids prostrated before him while he was engrossed in a ritual. He initially took out a pointed metal rod with a ring and stroked her back gently with it. As a hush fell, he then brushed her back again with a feathered broom. He later gave her a pinch of ash. It seemed like a ritual to ward off evils and to bless the lady and her children.
As he turned, I got a glimpse of the dark room behind him which was covered in layers of ash. A burning lamp gave me a bit of light as I peeped in. More chains, tridents, spears, and all forms of sharp weapons lay stacked inside and everything suddenly felt rather ominous.
The old man, who they called a priest introduced himself as Ramesh Parthi, a member of the Gond tribe from Chougan village and he was actually a fourth-generation exorcist. Every Monday a ritual took place in this “temple” in Chogan. People believed to be possessed by spirits would come here to be liberated as it’s known for the practices of exorcism in India. He added that his ancestors were all exorcists and these ” spiritual powers” were something that the Goddess had given them. ” I didn’t learn anything, it is just something that I got from my father, “ he said.
Most of the possessed souls who came here to be exorcised were given a specific time on any Monday of a month. They would be chained to prevent them from ascending the ladder while the “priest”, cleansed and freed them from the demons possessing them. “Sometimes they try to climb the ladder which is only meant for pure souls and then we have to try and stop them, ” he added.
Demons come in all forms and are not just spirits or ghosts. It could be unfulfilled desires, worries, sorrows, ill health, and diseases among others. “Parents who have no children or those who come here to pray for the welfare of their family come here to be blessed. The woman’s children were both born with the grace of the Devi. She is here today to pray for her husband who has had a surgical procedure,” said Ramesh Parthi, adding that she had come all the way from Nagpur to Mandla and Chogan.
We saw her and her children heading towards the ladder, scattering the ash there and then spending a few minutes in silent prayer. I did not want to intrude but Ramesh Pathi followed suit, lighting the incense sticks and explaining that the ladder is the representation of Kali Mata as its a connection to their spiritual world – hence the name, Stairway to Heaven.
At the tribal museum at Bhopal, I learnt that the ladders are called sarag naseni, and it is where the deities dwell. At Chougan, it is believed that over seven deities reside here and hence it is called a “district court of Goddesses,” and it is filled with divine aura and energy. Hence the tribes believe that the temple here in Chogan is where demonic forces possessing humans can be defeated by the heavenly powers.
The priests or exorcists who climb the ladders are believed to be possessed with spiritual powers, which is how they are able to exorcise the demons. It is believed that only a pure spiritual soul can climb the ladder. So when the souls possessed by demons are trying to climb the ladder, they are stopped by the priests and cleansed. At the museum, I also read about a fascinating narrative from the Mahabharata. According to a Gond myth, it is believed that Arjuna stood on an iron ladder made by the Agariyas, the community of iron smelters when he shot successfully an arrow at the target and he won the hand of Draupadi at the Swayamvar.
The supernatural powers here also grant unfulfilled desires and treat people who come here with mental health issues. The tribes offer prayers in gratitude and donate tridents and iron pillars and ladders ritually once their prayers are granted. As I looked around the Chougan temple, I also saw a few pillars and I recalled that at the museum, I read that a few of them are called Pagal Dev Khambh . I read that the mind has many levels and if any one of the levels is disturbed it could result in mental health issues.
The heat was getting to me and yet I could not shake off the cold eerie feeling that had clung to me since I had walked into this courtyard. Ramesh Parthi slowly walked back to the little shrine and pulled out the metallic objects and feathered broom, the totems of spiritual energy, and started his ritual. A man prostrated in front of him as he was cleansed, blessed, and protected from evil eyes. . As we left, he looked at us with a deadpan expression and said. “I am just the medium. The Goddess is everything. ”
Where is Chogan ?
Located near Mandla town, which is one of the gateways to Kanha National Park, Chogan, Chaugan or Chougan is a tribal village, which is predominantly the home of Gonds, besides Baigas among others. About 2000 tribes live in a few hundred homes, and they are known for their wooden arts and crafts and their lively dances. You can visit the Mandla Fort or Moti Mahal and Begum Mahal, nestled at Ramnagar located barely 15 km away. The temple here in Chogan is considered to be very powerful with potent divine energies and hence it is popular for ritual practices of exorcism in India.
Chogan beckons people from not just Madhya Pradesh, but also from Maharashtra and Chattisgarh, Mandla town is the closest at 40 kms away. Chaugan village is also being developed as a rural tourism project by the tourism board. We visited Chougan as a part of the tribal trails organised by Times Passion Trails and Madhya Pradesh Tourism, with Dr. Vasant Nirgune, as our Experience Architect. The Bhopal Tribal Museum gives you a small peek into the beliefs of the tribes.
On the very first day of the trail, we met Mr. Sheo Shekhar Shukla, Principal Secretary, Tourism, and MD of MP Tourism Board, who advised us to leave our rational thinking minds and our scientific temperaments aside when we interact with the tribes. And as spirited debates in the bus later flew regarding exorcism in India and supernatural stories, I couldn’t help but think of Mr. Shukla’s words. As the English poet, Samuel Coleridge would say, we all need a little bit of the “willing suspension of disbelief” to experience words that are different from ours.
Have you been anywhere where exorcism in India is being practised ?